Monday 27 September 2010

Can we Learn Anything from a Presbyterian Understanding of the Local Church?

There are perhaps four aspects of a Presbyterian pattern for a local church that comprise a compelling argument for this form of a church order. The headings chosen all begin with the letter ‘C’ and this is in some measure coincidental but it does however aid our remembrance. The headings that describe this suggested NT church model are confessional, connectional, church polity and covenantal theology. Let us begin by explaining these terms and their correspondence with the NT.

1. Confessional

The Presbyterian confession of faith for the English speaking world is the Westminster Confession along with the Larger and Shorter Catechism’s. These form a subordinate standard to the Bible but they give a summary of what is believed to be the Apostle’s doctrine (Acts 2:42). Obviously these documents were not known to the first century apostles and they are not infallible, however the doctrines they contain were known and written about by the early church elders and in a sense these doctrines are infallible. The nineteenth Century theologian Benjamin B. Warfield wrote about these three forms of unity and stated: ‘They are the richest and most precise and best guarded statement ever penned of all that enters into evangelical religion and of all that must be safeguarded if evangelical religion is to persist in the world’.[1]
To be reformed means holding to a reformed confession as a basis for church membership, preaching and as a means of interpreting Scripture. It is not uncommon to hear some Christians boldly assert that ‘all I need is the Bible’. It sounds right and yet it is profoundly mistaken because the real question centres on how we interpret the Bible. There are three options when it comes to church tradition. Tradition is something that is seen in a negative light, as if all tradition is ugly and something to be rejected as utterly false. According to Heiko Oberman there are two ways to understand the relation between Scripture and tradition, called Tradition I and Tradition II. [2]
Tradition I is the Reformed principle of Sola Scriptura which accepts the Scripture as the single and unique authority in the church while maintaining a high regard for tradition to learn from the past, so that we can more accurately interpret Scripture. Tradition II would represent the Roman Catholic Church that places church tradition on an equal footing with the Bible. Alistair McGrath observes a third category called Tradition 0 which is a ‘fundamentally individualistic approach to Scripture and tradition’.[3] McGrath explains that this places the ‘private judgement of the individual above the corporate judgment of the Christian church concerning the interpretation of Scripture’ and furthermore he believes it is ‘a recipe for anarchy’.[4]
This poses a searching question for anyone who would claim the name Christian. Which approach to tradition best represents your faith and your church? Presbyterian churches should hold to Tradition I but always need to be aware of the danger of allowing their confession to be exalted above Scripture. However, to live without any confession of faith at all, opens the door to rampant individualism that exalts human opinion above every form of authority.

2. Connectional

A second dynamic attribute of Presbyterianism is labelled as connectionalism. This means that local churches are in some measure inter-connected while maintaining their own identity and local church government. Thomas Witherow explains that there are three forms of church government and writes:
Prelacy is that form of church government which is administered by archbishops, bishops, deans, archdeacons, and other ecclesiastical office-bearers depending on that hierarchy; and is such as we see exemplified in the Greek Church, the Church of Rome, and the Church of England.
Independency is that form of church government whose distinctive principle is, that each separate congregation is under Christ subject to no external jurisdiction whatever, but has within itself—in its office-bearers and members—all the materials of government; and is such as it is present in practical operation among Congregationalists and Baptists.
Presbytery is that form of church government which is dispensed by presbyters or elders met in session, presbytery, synod or general assembly; and are such as presented in Presbyterian Churches.[5]

Undoubtedly God blesses different forms of church government but if we look at the NT it seems there was inter-church connection for ministry, accountability and support. For example the conference in Acts chapter fifteen that discussed doctrinal matters on behalf of local congregations and then Paul’s example in collecting diaconal aid for the saints in Jerusalem and Judea from many Gentile churches (1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2Cor. 8-9; Rom. 15: 22-9).
One pastor-theologian has commented that what led him from independency to Presbyterianism was the witnessing of gross injustices without any recourse alongside recognition of the interconnection of the one and many, the particular and universal. It is our contention that a Presbyterian form of church government principles, best represents the NT apostolic pattern.

3. Church Polity

In recent years there has been a lot of debate as to what are ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ doctrines for evangelical unity. While much of this discussion has been valuable it has sadly relegated the doctrine of the church to a position of secondary importance. This may have led some to altogether dismiss this crucial doctrine of which the NT has much to say.
The Presbyterian example that was modelled by the church in Geneva led by John Calvin and others has been replicated all over the world because men believed that a triform church office best represents the NT. This blueprint anticipates the offices of pastor (or minister), ruling elders and deacons. The pastor is primarily responsible as a man called, trained and equipped to lead the spiritual ministry of the church and most especially the preaching of pure doctrine. The elders are men who are to rule alongside the pastor and to oversee the church’s organisation, care and discipline (moral and doctrinal). The deacons do not constitute church rule but they are responsible for practical care and compassion. One of our aims must be faithfulness to Scripture, with an attitude that believes that we cannot improve on God’s plan. Obviously God’s plan will lead to the best care of the church and the best administration of the gospel. This three-fold pattern of church offices held by many Presbyterian Churches seems to faithfully describe the NT model for ministry.

4. Covenantal Theology

One of the exciting marks of Presbyterianism is its relentless pursuit for the accurate exegesis of Scripture and pure biblical theology—both are often sadly neglected in much of the modern church. Presbyterians emphasise a covenantal approach to theology which produces an important lens for biblical interpretation. This approach upholds continuity from Genesis to Revelation and the general view is that there was a covenant of works given to Adam before the fall and then the covenant of grace begins to unfold throughout the Bible, beginning from the first gospel statement in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:15). J. V. Vesko explains that this covenant of grace is unfolded in four main covenants: Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic.[6] These covenants point the way to their climax which is the grace and redemption of the New Covenant purchased by Jesus’ own blood (Jer. 31:31-4; 1 Cor. 11:23-5; Heb. 8:1-13).
Four ways in which this covenantal continuity is manifested is in preaching, the law, baptism and the Lord’s Day. In preaching, sermons usually draw on the whole Bible and do not exclusively focus on passages from the NT and exposition should connect the Bible as a whole without apparent contradictions. This also means that the Law and especially the Ten Commandments have an important role for the church’s sanctification, even though we are saved by grace and never by the law. Baptism is administered to infants of believing parents as a connection to the OT covenant sign of circumcision but also to adult believers from non-Christian backgrounds. The Lord’s Day is seen to be a gift from God and this day (Sunday) is set aside for rest and the public worship of God. This is not a legalistic obligation but a joyful gift of the New Covenant that goes back to an ordinance given by God in Creation.


If this outline does not convince you fully, hopefully it will lead many to freshly investigate the importance of the local church to be organised in a way that is ‘decently and in order’ (1 Cor.14:40). Many significant theologians have unreservedly held to a Presbyterian pattern and these have included John Calvin, John Knox, Herman Bavinck, B. B. Warfield and William Hendriksen, to name a few. Presbyterianism is boldly proposed by Witherow who states: ‘Of all the churches now existing in the world, the Presbyterian Church comes nearest to the model of apostolic times’.[7]

However, it must also be stressed that though these principles are gleaned from Presbyterian theology, not all Presbyterian Churches put this into practice. Liberalism and other winds of doctrine have influenced many parts of Presbyterianism as it has many segments of the Christian Church. Additionally it must be pointed out that the Presbyterian Church does not hold the copyright to these ideas because they are believed to be drawn from the Scriptures. For example the concept of connectionalism is something that all churches should seek out to avoid the pitfalls of Independency. We need to be realistic in putting these lessons into practice as we minister in a world of diversity. May this brief paper, at the least, spur us on to place the doctrine of the church to the same place of priority that the NT writers gave it. It was not a secondary non-essential to them and it should not be to us.

[1] Benjamin B. Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings, Vol. II, ed. John E. Meeter, Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973, 660.
[2] R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety and Practice, Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2008, 8-11.
[3] Ibid., 27.
[4] Alistair E, McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 2nd ed., Oxford: Blackwell, 1993, 144-5.
[5] Thomas Witherow, The Apostolic Church: Which is it?, Edinburgh: Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, 1967, 14.
[6] J. V. Fesko, Last Things First: Unlocking Genesis 1-3 with the Christ of Eschatology, Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2007, 79-81.
[7] Witherow, The Apostolic Church: Which is it?, 76.

Monday 13 September 2010

The Ingredients of Public Worship

Many people ask me the question, 'what does a Presbyterian Church look like in practice?'; and it is perhaps helpful to partially answer this in this blog article. Of course the best way is for people to come and join us for public worship in Sheffield ( on the Lord's Day and we identify eight ingredients for public worship. Let us look briefly at these in turn.

1. A Clear Call to Worship the Triune God in the name of Christ the Mediator.

Our worship services will most often commence with a formal 'call to worship', a call which will include a verse from Scripture but also an exhortation to focus our hearts and minds on the Triune God. Our Lord Jesus Christ remarked to the woman at the well in John 4:22, that 'you worship what you do not know'. We do not want this to be said of ourselves, while pursuing a pattern of biblical and reformed worship and hopefully a clear call to worship minimises this possibility.

2. Public Prayer by the Minister

The public worship service is not an open prayer meeting but prayer should be a dynamic thread throughout the whole service. The organising minister prays publicly on behalf of the congregation as an act of worship, something that should direct our hearts and minds in adoration of God, the confession of sin, the request for forgiveness, along with intercession for God's church and God's world.

3. Congregational Singing

The apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesian Church and he exhorts them; 'Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart (5:19)'. The New Testament does not teach much about singing. Congregational singing is important but it must not dominate the proceedings at the expense of our next ingredient.

4. The Public Reading of the Scriptures

Need I say more! The public reading of the Scriptures forms a vital aspect of our worship and as the Scripture is read we must anticipate that this is God himself addressing us, from His Holy Word.

5. Preaching

Christ told Peter to 'feed my sheep (John 21:16)'. This is primarily exercised through the expositional preaching of the Word of God which is to be diligently heard by the sheep.

6. Rightly Administering the Sacraments

The two sacraments of the church are baptism and the Lord's Supper. Historically the right administration of these two sacraments has been deemed as the second mark of a true church. Their orderly administration is vital for the correct functioning of a New Testament church.

7. Benediction

Each service will be formally closed with the use of a benediction. The benediction is the pronouncement of the blessings of God that are made available to the church, in and through our Lord Jesus Christ. Examples from the New Testament are: Romans 16:25-7; 2 Corinthians 13:14; 2 Thessalonians 3:16; Hebrews 13:20-1.

8. Sunday is the Lord's Day

The whole day is ordained by the Head of the Church, as a day for the public and private exercises of God's worship, for the spiritual profit of the saints and the glory of God'. Hopefully this day should be a 'foretaste of glory divine.

These eight ingredients have been explained only very briefly, but at least this blog article introduces us to the crucial matter as to the importance of what happens in the public worship of God, by Christians.